Tony Hillerman is a part of my formative years. I discovered him while living in New Mexico, probably during high school. Reading his books are sort of like coming home for me. Even though I lived along north I-25, and the books take place along west I-40, the descriptions of Navajo culture resonates deeply. I can still see the vivid colors and smell the Indian Fry Bread.
In the Navajo language, the word for mole translates to People of Darkness, those who come from below. The book hinges on the origin of the mole fetishes carried by six Navajo men, who survived an oil well explosion in the late 1940s. These men also belonged to a peyote church whose leader had a vision which warned them to stay away from the well on the day of the explosion.
People of Darkness is the introduction of Jim Chee into the world Tony Hillerman has created. Chee is faced with big decisions; FBI or Navajo Police, cop or singer and healer for his people. As he gets pulled deeper into the mystery of a stolen box filled with mementos, a hired assassin and six deaths from cancer, Chee nearly gets killed himself.
Hillerman’s mysteries are kept from being run of the mill by the intersection of white and Navajo culture. Since they’re set on Navajo land which has sketchy boundaries at best, there’s always jurisdictional issues. FBI or Navajo Police? Sheriff or BIA? Some combination of that or someone else? In Hillerman’s books, FBI almost always thinks it’s their jurisdiction.
What I’m most appreciative of are the descriptions of manners and customs. One does not drive up to someone’s home and knock on the door. One parks 30 feet away and waits for someone to come to the door and invite you in.
Navajo religion plays a big part in these books as well. Navajos seek harmony and believe that a person’s illness is caused by being out of harmony. A healer determines which ceremonies must be performed in order to bring the person back into harmony. Cancer isn’t a disease of uranium poisoning through mole fetishes, it’s being out of harmony. It’s Chee’s understanding of this concept and his training to be a singer which helps him understand how the pieces fit together.
People of Darkness is also the introduction of Mary Landon, a white teacher from Wisconsin. Hillerman has Chee and Landon do the dance of inter-racial suspicions before they settle into a friendship. She’s described as the typical white woman Chee knows so well as someone looking for a good time with him because he’s Native American. He’s described as the typical Navajo who is suspicious of anyone white. It’s fun to read how the dynamics change between them as the story progresses.
Tony Hillerman’s mysteries are not deep, most books run right around 200 – 300 pages. They’re a fun way to pass an evening, and some days that’s all anyone can want.
I have this idea I should read the book the author has written, not the book I wanted him to write. Ovid is a first century poet whose stories reflect the times and norms in which he lived. In Book Nine, we encounter two stories of “inappropriate” love, and the way Ovid handles them says more about his world than anything else.
We meet Hercules and learn about the contests he’s had to prove his strength and worth. Achelous, the river-god, challenges Hercules to a fight for a woman named Deianira. In the end, the god’s superior strength and shape-shifting ability are no match for Hercules who breaks off one of the horns while Achelous is in the shape of a bull.
The story of Hercules and Nessus reminds me of the story about the woman who helps a scorpion cross the river. In order to get her help, the scorpion promises not to sting her but halfway across stings her anyway. When questioned, the scorpion replies, “You knew what I was before we started across.”
Nessus is a centaur with poisonous blood and a deep desire for Deianira. When Hercules and his wife encounter a raging river, which she can’t swim, Nessus volunteers to help. Hercules will swim across and meet them on the other side. Except, you know how this goes. Nessus tries to make off with Delanira and Hercules kills him with arrows. In his last act, Nessus gives Delanira the shirt he’s bled on as a gift which would “excite” Hercules.
Never take gifts from those whom you know to be untrustworthy. The final price isn’t worth paying.
In “The Death of Hercules,” Rumour spreads gossip about Hercules to Delanira, who believes what she hears.
Rumour whose joy it is to embroider the truth with falsehood and grows by her lies to gigantic proportions from tiny beginnings. (lines 137 – 138)
In Delanira’s brief soliloquy she weighs her options, leave Hercules or try to “regain” his love. Not realizing the poison which Nessus’ shirt is soaked in, she has a servant deliver the shirt, as a gift, to Hercules who is performing his ritual in the Temple of Jupiter.
Of course, Ovid writes “revolting to detail” (line 167) and then proceeds to graphically describe the effect of this poison on Hercules. This also gives Hercules the opportunity to list the Twelve Labors he’d performed. Basically he says, “I did all these heroic deeds, and this is how I die?”
Jupiter steps in, saying that since Hercules is half mortal on his mother’s side, and immortal on his father’s (Jupiter) side, only the mortal parts of Hercules will burn away, making him an immortal welcomed to the halls of Olympus.
Next is a different story of love. To say Byblis has issues would be putting it mildly. Hers is a story of unrequited love and her struggle to not give into her darker impulses. Because the man she burns for is her twin brother.
She makes many arguments trying to reason through why incest isn’t such a bad idea. They are not yet adults, it can be blamed on their youth. The gods slept with their siblings, why can’t they? She would never turn Caunus’ advances down if he were to make them, so why shouldn’t she make the advances herself?
The ick factor is high with this one, but the way Ovid writes her is almost sympathetic. If she were a young woman burning for a man not related, one could feel compassion for her.
Byblis’ solution is to write a letter to Caunus describing her deep abiding love to him, expecting him to reciprocate those feelings. Of course, Caunus is appalled and livid to receive such a message, throwing the tablet it’s written on across the room and threatening to kill the messenger.
Shocked at the response she receives, Byblis loses her mind and travels the country exhibiting her grief quite publicly. Exhausted, she falls to the ground weeping and the Carian nymphs try to console her. She is quite inconsolable and turned into a spring.
And finally, there’s the story of Iphis, whose love is also problematic. While her mother is pregnant, her husband threatens to kill the baby if it’s not a boy. To save the life of her new-born girl, she lies.
Iphis is raised as a boy. At the age of thirteen, her father arranges a wedding between her and her best friend, Ianthe. Ianthe comes from a wealthy family and will provide a large dowry. She’s fallen in love with Iphis believing she’s male.
… but Iphis loved without hope of ever enjoying her loved one, which made her passion the stronger – a girl in love with a girl! Almost in tears, she sighed: Oh, what will become of me now? I’m possessed by a love that no one has heard of, a new kind of passion, a monstrous desire! If heaven had truly wanted to spare me, It ought to have done so. If not, and the gods were out to destroy me, they might at least have sent me some natural normal affliction. (lines 723 – 730)
Iphis’ soliloquy is heart wrenching as she mourns for the love that cannot be. She prays to the gods asking why they were causing the wedding to go forward when they knew Iphis would never know the physical love of her wife.
Her mother is equally troubled and does all she can to postpone the wedding day. Here, it’s made clear that Iphis has no idea why the lie has been told, and that her father has remained clueless all these years.
The day before the wedding is set, mom takes Iphis to the temple of the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and prays for help. It was Isis who had visited during childbirth offering exhortations to lie about Iphis’ gender, in order to protect her life. The temple trembles as the prayers are offered, which is taken as a “propitious omen.”
As mother and child leave the temple, Iphis’ body changes, and she becomes a boy. Joyously, Iphis takes his place beside his bride, Ianthe, knowing that he will be able to fulfill his husbandly duties.
While reading the story of Iphis, I had to remind myself that Ovid’s audience was not twenty-first century citizens who had just witnessed the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US. His audience would have had very real phobias and concerns about homosexuality.
Only the very rich men, and the scholarly, were allowed to sate their sexual desires in any way they chose. Though they were often portrayed as bisexual rather than homosexual. Women were not allowed this freedom.
As with all hierarchical patriarchies, what is okay for the upper classes is definitely not okay, and can often be seen as shameful, for the lower classes. Thus, the reflection of the times in the story of Iphis who must become a man before getting married to his love.
It’s not hard to imagine readers giving up on Metamorphoses. This is a big book. And Ovid tries the patience of the most diligent readers because he often doesn’t make sense.
I must remind myself frequently that Ovid’s audience would have known about most of what I’m reading, and that it had cathartic elements for those in a highly stratified, patriarchal society.
Juno’s jealousy and anger can be more easily absorbed when it’s understood that women in Ovid’s time had absolutely no recourse for anything which happened to them. Rape was not uncommon, especially amongst slaves and serving women. Fidelity to a wife was considered a suggestion, not a norm.
So Jove having his way with whomever he sees is a reflection of the sexual norms of the times, taken with a wink and a nod by laughing men in the audience. Juno’s overblown anger and desire to punish the victims can be seen as women lashing out at their perpetrators in a safe environment.
It’s often difficult for me not to become outraged at the appalling behavior presented, a good reminder not to apply my twenty-first century attitude to first century concerns. Myths, and religions, have been designed to explain what mortals cannot comprehend. Your neighbor’s cow died suddenly? He must have angered some god, and there’s a story for how and why.
Book Eight features more daughters in conflict between fathers and lovers, similar to Medea and Jason in Book Seven.
Scylla (not the same Scylla paired with Charybdis) falls for Minos hard. Minos has come to do battle and conquer Megara, ruled by Scylla’s father. The king has a crimson lock of hair at the crown of his head which grants him invincibility. To impress Minos, Scylla cuts off this lock of hair and presents it to Minos, who rages at her for her filial betrayal.
… I pray that the gods will banish you far from their own bright sphere and that space is denied you on land and ocean Certainly I shall never allow my own sphere, Crete, the cradle of Jove, to be made unclean by so evil a monster! (lines 97 – 100)
As with Medea, Ovid writes of Scylla’s internal dialogue weighing her options. Should she remain loyal, or allow herself to help the gorgeous Minos? How should she go about this treachery? She daydreams of turning herself in and allowing herself to be taken hostage, so that her father will have to pay a ransom. Scylla’s ponderings seem extreme, but young girls are no strangers to this sort of fantasizing.
In the next story is Minos’ half-bull, half-human son, the Minotaur who lives in a maze designed by Daedulus. Every nine years, Minos sent fourteen boys and girls into the maze to be eaten by the Minotaur as a sacrifice.
This story adds another piece to the legend of Theseus. With the aid of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, Theseus uses a thread to lead him back out of the maze after killing the Minotaur. But, as is typical, Theseus abandons Ariadne the first chance she gets.
These stories contain so many layers in so few lines. Women betray their fathers for the chance at love with the good-looking man. Good-looking man uses woman to meet his needs and betrays her, leaving her stranded and without love and family. Passion is one of the continual themes in Metamorphoses. Passion rarely leads to happy endings.
Daedulus is the connection to the next story. It’s the origin story for the phrase “flying too close to the sun.” The meaning comes from Daedulus’ warning to his son Icarus, about being sure to pay attention to his flight path as they escape their island exile by using wings made of bird feathers and wax. Icarus becomes enamored of the experience, and the sights he’s seeing, and forgets his father’s advice. By flying too close to the sun, the wax on Icarus’ wings melts and he plunges to his death in the sea.
The meatiest story in Book Eight is that of Meleager and the Calydonian Boar. This is another story of betrayal, familial conflict, and infatuation.
The crux of the story is that Diana goes unacknowledged in the annual sacrifice to the gods in Calydon, so she sends a giant boar to ravage the countryside. A hunt is set up, Meleager and a list of heroes go off to kill the boar. Among the hunters is Atalanta, a young woman with whom Meleager falls in love. When the boar is killed by Meleager, he presents the spoils of the win to Atalanta which causes the other hunters to argue with him. Because Atalanta is a woman, she does not deserve the spoils, despite her contributions to bringing the boar down and the promise made by Meleager.
Fighting ensues, men kill each other, because it’s a mythic story and this is how disagreements are settled. In the heat of battle, Meleager kills his two uncles, brothers to his mother. Mom has conniptions fits over this and ruminates over her anger at her son for killing her brothers. Torn between the love for her son and her brothers, she eventually decides to follow through on burning the log the Fates gave her at the birth of Meleager.
As long as the log goes unburned, Meleager, will continue to live. Queen Althaea wrapped and hid the log at his birth, ensuring that no one else had access and that her son would live a long life. Until the boar hunt.
Vengeance is mine by sin; and death is atoned for by death; crime must needs be added to crime; and a body to bodies. Perish the guilt-cursed house in sorrow heaped upon sorrow! … I pray to the shades and the newly departed soul of my brethren: take regard of the honour I show you; accept my sacrifice, offered at such dear cost, the evil fruit of my own womb! (lines 483 – 490)
Kids don’t piss off your mom.
Then we have sweet Philemon and Baucis, an elderly couple who take in two strangers and share their meagre belongings and food with them. Turns out the strangers are gods, there to destroy the village. But because Philemon and Baucis have welcomed them into their home, their lives will be spared.
This story is recognizable in many other cultural stories. In the Old Testament, Lot and his family take in two strangers who reveal themselves to be angels and warn the family about the impending doom of the city they live in.
Book Eight ends with the story of Erysichthon, the man who ate himself to death, literally. This is a brief story featuring the rage of Ceres, goddess of agriculture, and the disrespect for her forests by Erysichthon, yet another in a long line of arrogant males in Metamorphoses.
To punish him, Ceres pleads to Hunger (much like Minerva pleads to Envy in Book Two). Hunger curses Erysichthon, making him so hungry that no matter how much he eats he’s never satisfied. After having eaten everything in his purview and spending all his money on food, he begins to eat his own body. Points for creative punishments.
In my lifetime of reading, there are large gaps in the list of books I believe I should have some introduction to. Admittedly, this belief comes from exposure to critical ideas about the “western canon.” My love of books and reading can never really be sated, there’s always more to learn and understand.
When one’s tribe is made up of well-read, erudite and eclectic readers, one cannot avoid the mention of characters and ideas which are centuries old.
Medea is one of those references. For as long as I can remember, her name has come up a lot. It was understood there was an important cultural reference being made when I read or heard about her, but I’d never really become familiar with her story. Until Ovid, of course.
I vaguely understood her as a signifier for feminism. Vaguely. Somewhere, more than likely in a Western Civ class, I probably read some of Euripides’ play about this woman who tried to take control of her life under the very heavy thumb of the Greco-Roman hierarchy. To even think of expressing ideas of independence for women was unheard of. It would have been shocking to see a portrayal of a woman visibly wrestling with the strictures of male dominance.
Ovid portrays Medea as a woman torn between passion and loyalty. Jason, the hero, arrives in town with his Argonauts to take the Golden Fleece, a symbol of authority and kingliness. Ovid’s audience would have been familiar with the symbolism of the fleece, but modern readers (or me, at least) have to dig a little deeper.
Medea’s father sets three tasks for Jason to do in order to take the fleece from the always awake dragon which guarded it. Medea’s conflict comes from being in love with Jason and wanting to use her sorcery to help him, and her loyalty to her father who is guardian of the Golden Fleece.
Within the first ten lines of Book Seven, Medea has fallen deeply in love with Jason. Her soliloquy is the first in Metamorphoses to reflect on her conflicting emotions. It took nearly half the book to get to some soul-searching.
… Desire and reason are pulling in different directions, I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong. I am royal so why should I sigh for a stranger, or ever conceive of a marriage which takes me away from my home? (lines 19 – 21)
Medea understands the intent of her father’s tasks, to kill Jason and keep the fleece at home. She feels loyalty towards her father, yet her love for Jason makes her want to see him survive.
Still fighting with herself over these diametrically opposed emotions, Medea convinces Jason to promise he will marry her when he has taken the fleece. In return, she will use her magic to help him complete the tasks successfully.
One of those tasks is to take the teeth of the dragon and plant them, then fight the warriors which grow from them. It was at this point I thought, “Again with the dragon’s teeth?” (See Book Three.)
Jason wins and he and his band of Argonauts sail off, Medea happily on board with her husband. When they reach Ioclos, Jason’s home base, Medea is asked to prove her love again by rejuvenating his father, Aeson, making him young again. Despite her protests, she is convinced.
Ovid attributes Medea’s eventual acquiescence to her own feelings of guilt for having betrayed and abandoned her own father to help Jason win the fleece.
The next story is about Medea killing Jason’s uncle Pelias, king of Ioclos. But Ovid glosses over the reasons for this. Either his audience was expected to know the story of Pelias’ treachery, or he felt it unimportant to relay. It’s not obvious from the text which it is.
And cruel Medea is, to the power-hungry king who is threatening the lands around him with war. Rumor had it he had also been disrespectful to Hera/Juno, and we already know how well she handles that.
Pelias’ daughters saw Medea rejuvenate Aeson and want the same for their father. Medea agrees to do this but tricks the girls into killing him themselves by stabbing him multiple times in order to draw his blood in what they think is part of the rejuvenation spell.
“with eyes averted, they blindly, wildly stabbed at their father. Dripping with blood, he still was able to lift himself up on his elbow. Though covered with gashes, he tried to get up from his couch, and braving the circle of sword points round him, extended his pale arms. What are you doing, my children?” he cried. “Who gave you those weapons to murder your father?” (lines 342-347)
In disgust, Medea finishes the job and boils his “butchered limbs” in water. One of the questions I have about this whole affair is why Medea was the one to kill Pelias? Did she feel duty-bound to Jason to use the ruse of a rejuvenation spell to get in close enough to both sully the daughters by making them do most of the work, and then finish it off herself?
Most of the rest of Book Seven is filled with travelogues, the recounting of the plague at Aegina, the turning of ants into men who became the Myrmidions, repopulating Aegina after the plague. But it ends with the tragic love story of Cephalus and Procris. Trust does not last long in Ovid’s tales, and that always leads to tragedy.
After their marriage, Aurora tries to draw Cephalus away from Procris, but he will not give in, speaking only of how much he loves his wife. In a fit of jealousy, Aurora plants doubts in Cephalus’ mind about Procris’ devotion. This is the age old theme of “if I can’t have him nobody can.” Sadly, Aurora has planted enough doubt and he begins to wonder if his wife is truly faithful.
So he tries to trick Procris by disguising himself (with Aurora’s help). As time goes on and Procris remains faithful to her husband, Cephalus keeps upping the ante, offering enormous gifts if only she would go away with the stranger before her. Finally, of course, Procris breaks down and agrees. Cephalaus reveals himself, confesses to his trickery, and eventually forgives her for capitulating.
This is a theme which always makes my blood boil. Mozart’sCossi Fan Tutte has been banned from my music library because this is the basis of the story. Men don’t trust their women and to prove them untrustworthy, the women are tricked by their lovers in disguise. When the women finally give in, usually after a great deal of time and offers of many lavish gifts, the men reveal themselves basically exclaiming, “I knew you couldn’t be trusted!” More cajoling occurs and everyone ends up laughing it off because, as cosi fan tutte is loosely translated, “Women are like that.”
To return to Cephalus and Procris, once they have made up, he goes hunting. In the mid-day sun, when Cephalus needed a break from hunting, he would rest and welcome the breeze which blew through the valley. He was overheard speaking to the breeze,
Come to me, beautiful breeze, steal into my breast, you’re so lovely. This heat is burning me up. Relieve me I beg you, as only you can! lines 813 – 814)
The busybody who overheard this scurried home to tell Procris that her husband was wooing another woman. Procris rushes out to hear for herself and hides in the bushes. Cephalus hears her noises and throws his spear which never misses, a gift from Procris, and kills her.
At least Ovid has the decency to show Cephalus crying at the end of this tale.
… in the last few days she had found herself nearly overwhelmed with a sense of futility. There was, she now accepted, no evidence for what she knew intuitively, and no safe way to bring the evildoer to justice even were there evidence to substantiate her intuition. (pp 160-161)
Matthew Stock is a clothier with a bustling business in Chelmsford (32 miles away from London). He is also the town constable and so is called on to solve crimes from time to time.
A troupe of players have arrived to perform at Sir Henry’s, the Magistrate, home. But the young man who plays all the women’s parts in their entertainments has been found dead in the stable at the inn.
This sweet Elizabethan mystery features questions Matthew is quite shocked to have the answers to. He and his adoring wife, Joan, solve the murders, which keep multiplying, together.
Fairly early on, the murderer/s are alluded to, but proving they did the deed is almost beyond the reach of Matthew because of class status. In the end, justice will out with some help from a highly placed official in London.
Although there were rather abrupt changes in character and point of view with no indication the character had changed, I found The Players’ Boy is Dead to be engaging and entertaining. A nice interlude from the heavier works I have been reading.
Arachne, of humble birth and place, has a reputation in her region as being a remarkable weaver. She is also arrogant enough to believe she is better than Minerva, goddess of weaving (among other things), and challenges her to a contest.
Minerva’s weaving showed triumphal stories of the gods while Arachne’s illustrated faults. Of course, the goddess took umbrage and “used it [shuttle] to strike Arachne on the forehead.” (line 153) Rather than take this punishment, Arachne tried to hang herself.
She was hanging in air when the goddess took pity and lifted her up. “You may live you presumptuous creature,” she said, “but you’ll hang suspended forever. Don’t count on a happier future: my sentence applies to the whole of your kind, and to all your descendants!” (lines 135 – 138)
Niobe, on the other hand, brags that her fourteen children are more than the two Latona has had. Therefore, she is more worthy of worship than Latona.
I am undeniably blessed; and blessed I’ll continue to be, without any doubt. My abundance assures me I’ll always be safe. I am far too important a person for fortune’s changes to harm me. However much I am robbed, far more will be left to enjoy. My blessings are such that I’ve nothing to fear; supposing a fraction of all this people, my children could ever be taken away, my losses could never reduce me to only two, the magnificent crowd Latona can boast, so near to making her childless! (lines 193 – 200)
Some people never learn. Don’t taunt the goddesses, it never ends well.
Ovid spends a lot of time describing, in excruciating detail, how Latona shows her wrath, with the help of her two children, Apollo and Phoebe, killing all fourteen children. As Niobe weeps and wails, Latona turns her into a weeping rock.
Book Six feels like a much shorter book than it is because most of it is taken up with Arachne and Latona.
Delos (aka Leto), just after giving birth to her twins comes across a lake and begins to drink from it. The peasants have different ideas and order her off. After pleading with them, they jump in the lake and stir up the mud so the water is undrinkable. For this transgression, they are turned into frogs.
She raised her hands to the heavens and cried, “May you live in your filthy pool for ever!” Her prayer was answered. The peasants’ delight to be under water, now plunging the whole of themselves to the bottom, now popping their heads out, sometimes swimming close to the surface. Often they’ll stay on the bank in the sun and often jump back to the cool of the water. But even today they continue to wag their tongues in loud and unseemly arguments; shameless as ever, although they are under the water, they’ll try to indulge in abuse. Their voices too have gone hoarse; their throats are inflated and swollen; their noisy quarrels have stretched their jaws to a hideous width. Their shoulders rise to their heads as their necks appear to have vanished; their backs are green, while their huge protruding bellies are white. They leap about in the muddy pool transmuted to frogs. (lines 368 – 381)
Near the end of Book Six is the story of Tereus, Procne and Philomela, but I have had enough of brutal rape, and arrogant, narcissistic males who find nothing wrong with their actions. Metamorphoses can be really brutal sometimes.
A writer reflects the times in which they are writing. It’s all too easy to apply modern sensitivities to earlier times.
Ovid’s Rome was patriarchal, with slave and class systems in place. Metamorphoses has been a very influential piece since the time it was written. It should come as no surprise that the attitudes of ancient Rome have been spread across the globe, and can still be found in contemporary society.
Ovid’s treatment of the characters in his epic poem resonate deeply with what one has experienced or observed from a 21st century perspective. So much work left to do.
The epic story of Perseus continues with a wedding banquet turned brawl thanks to Andromeda‘s first intended. Phineus insists on taking Andromeda back and leads a sword swinging fest that is gore and blood and anguish defined. It isn’t until after much stabby-stabbity that Perseus remembers he has Medusa‘s head and begins using it to literally stop his foes in their tracks.
Why he waited so long is a question only Ovid can answer. Friends keep telling me not to ruin a good story by trying to make sense of it. So I’ll let it be.
In all of the words about fighting comes an object lesson about death coming to you no matter your class or status.
Dorylas rich in land, whose estates of cornfields and mounting heaps of imported incense were larger than anyone else’s. Rich as he was, he was struck by a javelin thrown from the side in the groin, that sensitive place. (lines 129 – 132)
Not only did the rich man die in a brawl, he died from a javelin to the groin.
A prime example of a mother’s love is the story of Proserpina.
…when Pluto espied her, no sooner espied than he loved her and swept her away, so impatient is passion. (lines 394 – 396)
They wind up in Hades. Meanwhile, Ceres searches for her daughter. Finding evidence of Prosperina’s girdle in Sicily, Ceres (goddess of agriculture) lays waste to Sicily until Arethusa talks her down and tells her Prosperina is queen of the underworld.
Jupiter, of course sticks up for Pluto:
… Lord Pluto hasn’t committed a crime but an act of love. No need for us to feel shame at the marriage, if only you will accept it, Ceres. (lines 524 – 526)
So long as Prosperina has not eaten anything in Hades, she is free to return home. Sadly, she ate seven seeds and was sentenced to spending six months in the underworld, the other six at home. (Thus, the mythological reason for seasons.)
Book Five is one third of the way through, and it continues to fascinate and appall with plenty of aha! moments, giving me lots to think about, A lifetime of reading is being recast as I continue.
Meet Pyramus and Thisbē, the ill-fated lovers who were the eventual inspiration for stories like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet ( the inspiration for West Side Story). This story has all the familiar trappings; feuding families, young people in love separated from each other (in this case, by a wall), whose plans to escape and be together tragically fail.
Thisbē makes it to the meeting place first, but loses her cloak as she moves away from a lioness whose muzzle is smeared with blood, The lioness chews on the cloak, smearing blood on it. Thisbē hides in a cave waiting for Pyramus to arrive.
Pyramus, of course, arrives and sees the blood-stained cloak and jumps to the wrong conclusion. Underneath a mulberry tree, he uses his dagger to kill himself. Thisbē, after a plaintive prayer, uses Pyramus’ dagger to join him in death.
You sad, unhappy fathers of Thisbē and Pyramus, hear us! We both implore you to grant this prayer: as our hearts were truly united in love, and death has at last united our bodies, lay us to rest in a simple tomb. Begrudge us not that! (lines 153 – 157)
The roots of the word hermaphrodite comes from the story of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Salmacis is the only nymph rapist in the ancient myths. She liked to loll around the lake, making herself beautiful. When Hermaphroditus arrived at the same lake, Salmacis could not take her eyes off him. Or, the rest of her. No one taught Salmacis “no means no,” as she desperately clung to him and had her way.
The boy held out like a hero, refusing the nymph the delights that she craved for. Salmacis squeezed still harder, then pinning the whole of her body against him, she clung there and cried: “You may fight as you will, you wretch, but you shan’t escape me. Gods, I pray you decree that the day never comes when the two of us here shall be riven asunder!” Her prayer found gods to fulfil it. The bodies of boy and girl were merged and melded in one. The two of them showed but a single face. (lines 367 – 375)
And lastly, there’s the story of Perseus and the gorgons, specifically Medusa, whose head of snakes kills anyone who looks directly at her. It’s interesting to note that Medusa was a mortal.
But first, “the shower of gold.” Yes, my mind went there, how could it not? Jupiter impregnated Danae with Perseus by becoming a shower of gold and pouring down on her.
Ovid’s politics become obvious in this tale.
While Perseus was flying on whirring wings through the yielding air, bearing his famous trophy, the head of the snake-headed Gorgon; and as he triumphantly hovered over the Libyan desert, some drops of blood from the Gorgon’s neck fell down to the sand, where the earth received them and gave them life as a medley of serpents, which explains why Libya now is infested with poisonous reptiles. (lines 614 – 620)
In this long heroic tale about Perseus, what fascinated me most was the story of Medusa. She’d once been very beautiful, but according to Ovid, she was raped by Neptune in the temple of Minerva. To protect herself from this horror, Minerva raised her shield to her face and punished Medusa by turning her hair into snakes.
As I read, I continue to ponder the attitudes towards women. Victims of rape are punished for the crime, often by other women. I can’t say I wasn’t warned about the appalling nature of Roman mythology.
So let me get this straight. Cadmus is ordered by Europa’s father to go in search of her and not return until she’s been found. Cadmus travels the (known) world and doesn’t find her.
Phoebus, the patron of Delphi, tells Cadmus to follow a heifer to where she lies down and there he will found Thebes.
Then, Cadmus slays a dragon. So far, I’m with this because it’s mythology writ large. But, Athena tells Cadmus to plant the dragon’s teeth and fierce warriors arise out of the ground.
At no point does Ovid describe these warriors as small, but I kept imagining miniature figurines rising out of the ground. Little hoplite like miniatures fighting it out in hand to hand combat literally in the trenches. Yeah, I kept giggling.
The last five warriors make peace with each other and join Cadmus in founding Thebes.
I’m not sure why planting dragon teeth put me over the edge. There have been out of control carriages crossing the sky and wreaking havoc, a physical description of Envy, people turning to stone, etc. It’s not like warriors from dragon’s teeth is any more over the top than the rest of it.
Book Three is when the women show they can be even worse than the men, in terms of vengeful spite.
Take Diana, for instance, who went more than a little overboard when Actaeon, purely by accident saw her, and her maidens, bathing naked in the pond. Turning him into a stag, and then setting his own hunting dogs on him, seems a little overboard for an unwitting mistake. Surely there was a kinder, more “understanding” way to send the message that looking upon the naked Diana, even by mistake, is punishable by death.
I keep saying this, “Never swear on the river Styx until you know what you’re being asked to promise.” I’m looking at you Jupiter.
Juno gets angry because Semele is pregnant by Jupiter, so she plots to punish Semele. Jupiter promises Semele anything, until the one thing she asks for – coming to her bed dressed as though he were going to Juno’s bed – is too much.
“… Jupiter wanted to gag her lips, but the fatal words had already been uttered. Neither her wish nor his solemn oath could now be retracted.” lines 295 – 297
Juno knew that Jupiter arriving in Semele’s bed, a mortal, as he would Juno’s, a goddess, would kill Semele. And it did, but the baby survived by being sewn into Jupiter’s thigh. Oy.
The way Ovid tells the story of Echo and Narcissus is so sad. Juno’s jealous, vengeful wrath is again at play as she takes Echo’s voice from her, leaving her only with the ability to repeat the last few words spoken by someone else first.
The word narcissist gets tossed around lightly to describe a person who is hopelessly, selfishly in love with herself, and could never be in love with anyone else. But think how it might feel, if the beloved someone was not recognized as his own image.
Ovid portrays Narcissus as a gorgeous young man chased by both men and women but refuses their advances. He even insults Echo who has fallen hopelessly in love with him. One day Narcissus sees someone with whom he falls in love, never realizing that it is merely his own reflection. There is much pining for this other person who is so near, yet so far away, separated by the thin film of water in a pond.
“He fell in love with an empty hope,
a shadow mistaken for substance.
Ovid’s writing here is so poignant, as though telling a love story of two people, aware of, and reaching for, each other across a great chasm, when it’s only a young boy in love with his reflection.
Book Three ends on a note of “religious” persecution as Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus, and current ruler of Thebes, loses his mind over the presence of Bacchus and his followers. Thebans just wanna have a good time, but some rulers can be so picky.
So much already vaguely familiar and so much new to learn. They’re right, Ovid is everywhere in our history, literature, art, etc. It’s like sitting down with a great history book, in which I learn the origin of every day things.
As is to be expected, Phaethon‘s ride in his father’s (Helios) carriage was a cataclysmic disaster. Never swear on the river Styx unless you are truly willing to do whatever is asked of you. Gods sure can be dumb sometimes.
Good grief, the men in Ovid’s tale are just …
When Jupiter spied her [Callisto] lying exhausted and unprotected, he reckoned: ‘My wife will never discover this tiny betrayal; or else, if she does, oh yes, the joy will make up for the scolding!’ (lines 422-424)
Mercury: He assumed no disguise, as beauty is always so full of confidence. Justly sure of his charms… (line 731-732)
The story of Envy is really something. Minerva is angry with Agraulos for her greed in promising to help Mercury gain the love of Herse. Minerva goes to the caves of Envy and orders her to strike Agraulos. When Mercury returns, she refuses to move away from Herse’s door, so he turns Agraulos into a statue.
“… She simply sat there, a lifeless statue; the stone was not even white, but stained by her own black envy.” (lines 831 – 832)
Jupiter returns for the last story in Book Two, turning himself into a gentle bull so as to lure Europa onto his back and into the sea for … well, we all know by now what Jupiter is best known for when he’s after a woman not his wife.
There’s also the theme of talking too much, and out of turn, as in the story about Raven and Crow in which Crow tries to warn Raven that he will be turned black for gossiping. And Old Battus who sells Mercury out to himself by accepting a reward from him for both promising not to tell anyone where Mercury’s cows are, and for telling Mercury, in disguise, where his cows are. Ouch.